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Game Review: Your Cincinnati Bengals are 3-1. The rest is just background noise

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The Bengals are 3-1. I'll let that settle in your unsettled stomach for a second. It seems a bit, off, doesn't it? We haven't truly dominated football games like our wins in 2005. No. We're winning these games close, most of the time in the last overtime second. We're not used to this. But it's exactly what the Pittsburgh Steelers did last year, who played half their games that was decided by a touchdown or less. Settle down. I wouldn't think of comparing the Bengals to the Steelers of 2008. Not right now. While it's not pretty, while it's not by overwhelming command, the Bengals are 3-1.

But they could be 0-4.

Blah, blah, blah. They're not. They're 3-1. And if this means anything to you, then read our note of the week this week.

Note of the week: It was four days before Christmas in 2008 when the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Cleveland Browns for their third victory of that season.

Days from the start of the 2009 season until the Bengals won their third game: 22 days
Days from the start of the 2008 season until the Bengals won their third game: 106 days

And if that doesn't mean anything to you, then I can think of better ways of being proud of my 3-1 team than negotiating a method for you to be happy about this team as a whole. No buts. No howevers. Just a 3-1 football team that's off to Baltimore next week for Kings of the AFC North. Now, don't you feel better? Maybe not. After all, Sunday's win over the Browns wasn't without its migraine headaches, indigestion and lack of civil breakdown when it comes to the English language.

The 2009 Bengals are better than some of you are allowing: The last time the Bengals started the season 3-1: 2006.

They've only started 3-1 in the first four games of the season three times during the Marvin Lewis era (2005, 2006 and 2009) and four times since 1990.

It doesn't always go through Carson Palmer. It just ends there. Even though it doesn't always look great, it always ends with Carson Palmer. And though it might seem that the game isn't entirely decided by Palmer's play, the way he's coming through in the end is something that, at one point, was missing early in Palmer's career. He's not throwing for 300 yards just yet, but he is winning football games. That is, after all, the only way Paul Brown measured a quarterback. Wins and losses. Before the season, Palmer recorded a 32-33 starting record. In four games this year, he's 3-1, back over that career .500 hump. And two of those wins came when many Bengals fans had simply written the team off as suffering another aggravating loss. No. Not Palmer. Not the Bengals, who are far more mentally tough then their fans right now.

By my count, Carson Palmer has put the Cincinnati Bengals in a position to win every game this year. Against the Cleveland Browns, he didn't just pull through once. He did it twice. Palmer converted a third-and-14 with 5:40 left in regulation on a 16-yard pass to Chris Henry. After back-to-back rushes by Bernard Scott for 27 yards, Palmer completes a 27-yard pass over the middle to J.P. Foschi, who was completely forgotten about by the Browns defense. Palmer's two incomplete passes to Chad Ochocinco to Laveranues Coles puts the Bengals in a much comfortable position. Winning when the game is on the line. Palmer checks down to Brian Leonard on a two-yard pass on third-down and with 2:02 left in the game, the Browns (for some reason) call a timeout.

The situation is fourth-and-goal at the Browns two-yard line. Palmer looks left, pump fakes, rolls right, reverses to the left and then throws a dangerous pass, across his body, over the middle to Chad Ochocinco for the game-tying touchdown. The point after touchdown was blocked. Some blame Brad St. Louis for a poor snap -- it was to Kevin Huber's right -- but this is the second time it happened and in both instances, Graham still had a shot; he kicked the football low enough for the Browns to maul it without much of a vertical jump. I'm not blaming Graham. St. Louis has to make those snaps and it would seem to me that St. Louis' time in Cincinnati should end.

Regardless. Palmer engineered a 10-play drive for 70 yards to tie the game with under two minutes left in regulation, converting on third-and-14 and fourth-and-two. In overtime, the Bengals offense struggled. The defense didn't, forcing the Browns into three punts -- Derek Anderson had six incomplete passes in overtime. In fact, both teams punted three times before the Bengals fourth overtime possession began.

With 3:23 left in overtime, Carson Palmer completed a 20-yard pass to Chris Henry on third-and-ten. First down. Palmer completed a 20-yard pass to Laveranues Coles on third-and-ten. First down. The Bengals damn-near decided to punt the football with 1:04 left in overtime, playing for the tie. Palmer pleads to head coach Marvin Lewis to go for it on fourth down. Lewis relents. Palmer, in shotgun, briefly scans the field looking for an open receiver. He does what he always does; he rushes for 15 yards and picks up the first down. Palmer completed another pass to Leonard for nine yards and the running back rushed for another four yards. Brad St Louis finally made a good snap and Shayne Graham put some air under the field goal attempt to give the Bengals a 23-20 win in overtime with seconds remaining.

Palmer's performance broken down by quarters
  ATT COMP YARDS TDS INTS RATING
1st 12 10 111 1 0 133.0
2nd 6 3 9 0 1 16.7
3rd 1 0 0 0 0 39.6
4th 10 4 47 1 0 88.3
OT 15 6 63 0 0 52.9

It's true. Palmer struggled, badly, after the first quarter. However, what difference does any of that matter? The Bengals are 3-1, in large part, because Palmer is stepping up when it matters the most. Last week, Palmer engineered a 16-play, 71-yard drive, completing a four-yard touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell, beating heavily-favored Pittsburgh. Against the Packers, Palmer recorded three touchdown passes. Against the Broncos, Palmer led the offense on an 11-play drive for 91 yards which ended with a Cedric Benson touchdown with :38 seconds left in the game and a one-point lead. Whatever happened after that, I don't remember.

The Bengals didn't win pretty Sunday. But pretty is only good for things that are totally not manly. This isn't just Bengals football, this is gritty Ohio football where we do just enough to win football games. It might bite us in the end. But there's a lot of time until the end and this team can only grow with momentum, as well as confidence, with the more wins they put in their pocket.

Bengals Tight Ends are actually playing pretty well. When Training Camp started, we expected that the Bengals would start Reggie Kelly, Ben Utecht and Chase Coffman each week. Instead, after injury and disappointment, the Bengals activated Daniel Coats and J.P. Foschi. Through four games, they are on pace on combine for 52 receptions for 580 yards receiving. Against the Browns, Foschi and Coats combined for seven receptions for 80 yards receiving. Foschi caught a critical 27-yard pass from Palmer with 3:37 left in regulation, giving the Bengals a first-and-goal at Cleveland's four-yard line.

Think of it this way. Andre Caldwell and Chad Ochocinco are the only pass catchers to put up better numbers this year. That's not bad for a couple of tight ends we had written off before the season even started.

The rushing offense was good, again. But not dangerous. It might not seem like it, but the Bengals rushing offense was there. The only issue they dealt with was an offensive coordinator that, as per his reputation, went a bit pass happy. As a result, the rushing offense's lack of rhythm was a consequence of lacking consistency. In the second and third quarter, Benson rushed the ball four times for 14 yards rushing.

Here's something that might be of interest. The Bengals first two possessions went 11 plays. The first, 88 yards. The second, 68 yards. In the first drive, Benson rushed the football four times for 15 yards. It might not sound like much, but Benson saved Palmer, who penalized the team by watching the play-clock reach zero, by picking up nine yards (combined) on first-and-15 and second-and-ten. Palmer nailed Andre Caldwell to convert the first third-down of the game. The drive eventually stalled at the Browns five-yard line, forcing Shayne Graham to have his 23-yard field goal attempt blocked. The snap was high, but the ball was on the ground, properly held in place for at least a second while Graham made his approach. The high snap forced Graham to stutter-step on his approach, forcing the low kick.

On the second series of the game, the Bengals started going into happy-fun-passing mode, calling for passing plays on four of the next five plays -- the rushing down was an end around to Andre Caldwell for 11 yards. Bernard Scott got his first rush of the game when the Bengals lined up five wide receiver formation on fourth-and-three with 3:59 in the first quarter. Scott motioned behind Palmer and then took a pitch to the right, picking up ten yards and the first down. Scott picked up another two yards on the next play and Benson finished the team's rushing offense on a subsequent two-yard rush.

Jeremi Johnson and Bernard Scott picked up four yards on the next possession. Benson was called twice on the following series with five minutes left in the first half. Palmer threw an incomplete pass on third-and-two, which brings me to my final point. I never believed that the rushing offense under-performed. I think through the first four games this year, our rushing offense has been as strong since the peak of Rudi Johnson's career. Intermixing Bernard Scott into the gameplan was absolutely beautiful. However I never thought of the rushing offense as dangerous either.

Against Cleveland, the Bengals rushed for 154 yards on 30 plays for a 5.1 yard-per-rush average. They only lost yardage on one rush and picked up nine first downs; two less than passing first downs. This is the third straight game the Bengals offense rushed for over 100 yards as a team, averaging 4.4, 5.3 and 5.1 yards-per-rush respectively.

Sometimes the players have to play. The popular knock on Bob Bratkowski's play-calling is how he predictably calls run, run and pass. The Bengals went three-and-out in seven possessions. In four of those possessions, the Bengals went run, run, pass. I was about to laugh that off and move on to the next topic. Then I noticed something. When the Bengals did run, run, pass on three-and-out drives, it wasn't the two rushing plays that hurt the team. In fact, of those four possessions, the Bengals had an average of five yards to go on third down. On all four third downs (you know, the pass part?), Palmer threw an incomplete pass.

Furthermore, I only found five sequences in which the Bengals called rushing plays on first down and the subsequent second down. They picked up 31 yards in those instances, combined. That's 6.2 yards, per first-second down sequence when the offense rushes the football. When the Bengals are gaining that type of yardage on first and second down, the quarterback has to put an end to his struggles and complete the first down pass. In fact, when Palmer threw the football on third down, he only converted three into first downs.

Give Palmer credit. Taketh Palmer credit. I will give Palmer tons of credit for this team being 3-1. The defense probably deserves the bulk of the credit, keeping the Bengals in football games and playing tough as nails when they needed to so the offense can make their comeback. But Palmer has done his part, coming through when we've needed him to. As much as credit I'll give Palmer, I'll taketh away. The growing concern on Sunday was that this offense averaged 6.2 yards to-go on third down, which should be very manageable.

With 9:13 left in the second quarter, Palmer threw a third-and-six out to Chad Ochocinco. The throw was a bit early into Chad's route and the receiver couldn't catch up with the pass. Punt. With 3:39 left in the second, Palmer threw a pass a bit outside of Caldwell's range on third-and-two; though Caldwell did get his left hand on the football. Punt. On third-and-three with :36 left in the half, Palmer threw to Caldwell who ran a pattern a yard short of the first down; probably could give Caldwell some grief on the lack of depth on a third-down route. Punt. With 7:32 left in the third quarter, Palmer pump faked a pass, lost the grip, throwing it into the ground for an incomplete. Punt. With 14:12 left in the fourth quarter, Palmer floated a pass down the left sidelines to a wide open Chris Henry. Browns safety Pool slid over to nearly pick off the pass on third-and-seven. Punt. Palmer looked at Chad Ochocinco on third-and-eight but had his pass tipped by the defender following Brian Leonard on an underneath route. Punt. In most cases, Palmer wasn't pressured. Some were bad throws. Some were good defensive plays. Few were good plays.

However, Palmer did rebound. On third-and-14, Palmer completed a 16-yard pass to Henry and nailed Chad in the endzone for a game tying two-yard touchdown on fourth down. Thanks to a rushing offense in overtime that saw Cedric Benson rush for 36 yards on his first three carries did the Bengals get some semblance of momentum. That was, of course stopped when Carson Palmer threw two incomplete passes on third down and was sacked with 9:35 left in overtime. On the final drive, Palmer completed two 20-yard passes on third down and rushed for 15 yards on fourth-and-11 giving Shayne Graham an easy (nothing is easy on our kicking game) 31-yard field goal. Game over. Bengals win.

If it doesn't work on one side, go to the other side. I thought one of the more alarming trends on Sunday was the ability for the Browns rushing game to move effortlessly against the Bengals defense once the Browns discovered a weakness. For example, the Browns started hitting the left side of the line hard. In the first five rushing plays on Cleveland's left side, the Browns gained more than two yards rushing, once. Then Cleveland started attacking the right side. When the Browns ran outside the right tackle, they averaged 8.6 yards-per-rush, which included runs of 16 and 21 yards. Whey rushed inside the right tackle, they averaged 4.1 yards, including gains of six, eight, seven and 14. Their offense ran the football 12 times on the left side of the line and recorded 33 yards rushing -- a 2.75 yard-per-rush average. In other words, run to the right, big gains. Run to the left, not much there.

So what was going on? In a lot of cases, the Browns offensive line played very good. They also played smart, attacking both Domata Peko and Pat Sims with double teams. Our defensive ends struggled shedding off blocks against tight ends and fullbacks, while the double team on our tackles were often too much clutter for our linebackers to make unimpeded attacks towards the point of attack. Dhani Jones, who for some reason, was very slow in reaction. Rey Maualuga, while still aggressive as hell, guessed the wrong point of attack, leaving massive holes beside him. Keith Rivers was, well, he was somewhere I'm sure. When Chris Crocker came up to the line of scrimmage to give the Bengals defense eight-in-the-box, Crocker missed multiple tackles; some of which should have occurred in the backfield.

Massaquoi should be used in fantasy football league's when facing the Bengals. I thought that Browns rookie wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi's day wasn't entirely a result of terrible coverage by the Bengals secondary. Browns quarterback Derek Anderson made throws that only Massaquoi could make. For example, on third-and-two with 2:00 left in the half, Derek Anderson floated a pass after a three-step drop down the right sidelines. With Leon Hall in Massaquoi's left hip, the pass was just long enough for the receiver to stretch out his hands and catch the reception. Outside a pass interference, there was nothing Hall could have done to prevent the catch. Sometimes you have to give credit to the quarterback and receiver for a great play.

There was really only one truly broken play on a Massaquoi reception. With 13:22 left in the second quarter, Derek Anderson threw a second-and-eight pass down the right sidelines to Massaquoi. Johnathan Joseph trailed the receiver a good five yards while Chinedum Ndukwe was another five yards away. If the play is a zone, then you have to wonder why Ndukwe was so late giving safety help. If the play is man, then, yikes. Massaquoi finished the days with an 18.5 yard-per-reception average on eight receptions. No other Browns receiver, tight end or running back recorded more than 37 yards receiving.

There are simply days when you have to give the opposition more credit than blaming your own team.

Are there really trends? So let's play a little game. Your job. Tell me exactly what you think of Bob Bratkowski. It's not enough that you use one sentence. You have to give me trends, predictability factors and results based on those trends and predictions. Furthermore, you have to disassociate simply bad play, like missed blocks, dropped passes, overthrown passes, slipping on the turf and great defensive plays. After you put all of that together, I want a decent sample size. Say, four seasons should suffice. Do those things, then give me your final analysis.

In the meantime, I'll break something down for you to get you started. Here are the averages of Bratkowski's trends one first downs and the subsequent second downs. Plays in which the Bengals picked up a first down on first down aren't included.

  • There were 12 times that the Bengals called any combination of rush and pass on first and second down. They averaged 7.0 yards-per-play.
  • There were five times that the Bengals called a rush one first down and a rush on the subsequent second down. They averaged 6.2 yards-per-play.
  • There were six times that the Bengals called two passes on first down and the subsequent second down. They averaged 3.8 yards-per-play, which included two sequences where the offense picked up zero yards, and lost three yards because of a quarterback sack.

The following is a chart of the Bengals rushing offense's point of attack (we're missing four plays, but it's a good enough trend).

  Left End LT LG Middle RG RT Right End
Plays 12 18 13 8 17 15 23
Avg. 5.50 6.72 6.54 3.13 2.65 4.27 2.34
Rank 17 5 7 23 26 16 32

Notes:

  • Carson Palmer threw 44 passes during the Bengals 23-20 win over the Cleveland Browns. The last time that Palmer threw 40 times or more during a Bengals win was during a 34-17 win over the Browns on September 17, 2006. That's a string of seven games straight losses when Palmer attempts 40 passes or more in a game. All-time, the Bengals are 3-8 when Palmer attempts forty passes.
  • Palmer through four games since 2004
      TDs INTs
    2009 6 5
    2007 10 6
    2006 6 4
    2005 9 2
    2004 3 7
    Palmer has recorded six touchdowns through the first four games. That's the second-lowest total through the first four games, excluding the 2008 season in which, as far as we can tell, actually didn't happen. The Bengals took off that year.
  • This is this the third time during the Marvin Lewis era that the Bengals defense didn't allow 30 points in any of the first four games. The others are 2005 and 2008 (zing!).
  • In the past two weeks, the Bengals have only converted eight of 30 third-down chances for a 27% conversion. Both games the Bengals converted less than 30%. The last time that the Bengals converted less then 30% of their third downs in back-to-back games was last year against the Eagles (tie), Steelers (dominated) and Ravens (dominated). I looked back each season until 1990 and found no instances in which the Bengals offense converted less than 30% of their third downs in back-to-back games and won.
  • The Bengals committed three personal fouls. Andrew Whitworth was called for unnecessary roughness (as well as two false starts). Kyries Hebert and Pat Sims were also called for personal fouls.
  • The Bengals have scored defensive touchdowns in back-to-back games.
  • Johnathan Joseph has recorded interceptions in back-to-back games.

Tweet of the Day. Andre Caldwell: "3-1 today wasn't pretty but it's a win.. My shoulder is banged but I will be ok.. I know we have all bengals fans nervous lol"